Sustainability and our clothing – part 2

Reading Time: 12 minutes

The following text was first posted on my Instagram over 10 posts recently, but to be honest I thought it might have the legs to be posted to the blog as well. It does pretty much sum up a lot of my thoughts on sustainability related to clothing and covers a number of points that tend not to be mentioned all that often. I also mention points that the industry that makes clothing may not be too keen to be focused upon. I’ve split it into two parts for your convenience.

Part 1 can be read here.

Sustainability part 6: The problems of traditional leather tanning

The low-end tanning industry causes immense problems for the holy river of Ganges in India and all that rely on the Ganges for their daily water.

The low-end tanning industry causes immense problems for the holy river of Ganges in India and all that rely on the Ganges for their daily water.

Speaking to a friend from India yesterday reminded me that I’d forgotten something in the first half of this series. The Ganges. 2500 kilometres of vital waterway running through India and Bangladesh. What do we find situated towards the start of the river? The leather tanning and footwear industry of Kanpur.

Tanning leather the traditional way, using chromium, is hugely polluting, yet with a grand river running past it’s easy enough to get rid of the nasty stuff. Only, this river is also the source of water for drinking, washing, irrigation and pretty much everything else for an astonishing amount of people and it is heartbreaking to see the devastation and problems caused.

What is made using the leather of Kanpur that justifies destroying the Ganges for? Cheap leather used for shoes and bags for Westerners mainly.

Which brings us smoothly to a related topic. The boots I’m holding have been my winter boots for 5 winters now. When I bought them they cost roughly three times what a pair of cheap boots would cost. I would typically expect a pair of cheap boots to last a season and then be thrown out, either because they are falling apart or have “fallen out of fashion”. Such is the way of fast fashion. These boots though are still as good as new, with no notable wear. They are Goodyear Welted and can be resoled when the time comes, but so far there is no visible wear to the sole and I fully expect them to last at least another 5 years.

If we look at the numbers behind this, we see that the boots that cost three times as much as a cheap pair, but last 10 times as long will end up costing a third of the cheapies over a 10 year period. This certainly backs up the old saying “buy well, buy once”. It also means there are 9 pairs of boots that remain on the shelves, which again benefits the water of the Ganges and the people that need it to live.

Sustainability 7: Buying vintage instead of new

Vintage clothes are already made, available, cheap and offer unique and rare styles. What's not to like?

Vintage clothes are already made, available, cheap and offer unique and rare styles. What’s not to like?

At this point, you’ll no doubt be wondering what the alternative to fast fashion might be, so let’s move on in that direction. In part 5 I mentioned that a lot of the garments made now are rubbish the moment they are made and hence they are by design going to have a short lifespan. They’ll be so poorly made and use a fabric of such low quality, that after a few wears, let alone a few washes, they’re used up.

What if there were clothes that were made properly though, of good fabrics, cost pennies on the pound, and actually already have a track record for longevity?

That’s right, we’re talking vintage clothes. There are lots around if you know where to look and with a little research, you can find what you’re looking for, or something you didn’t realise even existed. Apart from being better value for money than fast fashion, there is much more fun to be had during the hunt. Keep an eye out for wear and damage though, and do a sniff-test, as not all old garments have had the benefits of dry and airy storage. It’s hard work getting that Eau De Vintage out of old garms (I did a piece on the blog about this recently though).

One of the real wonders of buying old clothes though is that this is truly without guilt. There is no jacket as sustainable as one that has already been made (the same goes for cars and many other consumer items). The coat I’m wearing on the photo is a British-made Invertere wool coat, probably about 40 years old. Perfect condition and 50 pounds on eBay. It’s even in the Prince of Wales check that appears to be currently very fashionable.

Sustainability part 8: Sew your own and upcycle

Making your own clothes is an option, either through upcycling and modifying existing clothes, or making them from scratch.

Making your own clothes is an option, either through upcycling and modifying existing clothes, or making them from scratch.

Another way you can become more sustainable in your clothing is to take an active part in the creation of what you wear. This can take many forms, from sewing or knitting clothes from scratch to altering and redesigning existing garments. Patterns and fabric are widely available and the amount of equipment needed to start sewing is not overwhelming. It’s not even that difficult to get started.

I find tremendous inspiration in watching «The Great British Sewing Bee» with Patrick Grand and Esme Young. Competitive sewing anyone? It’s a thing.

Knitting requires even less investment, though to my eyes looks much more difficult. Both sewing and knitting are tremendously rewarding and while offering an outlet for creativity also teach you what makes a garment well made, and likewise what doesn’t. This also means that when you do look at clothes, you are an informed consumer and can judge both the quality of the fabric and the workmanship and design that’s gone into it. It’s sadly quite rare that I inspect a garment and find myself thinking that it’s really properly made.

In this photo, I’m wearing two garments I’ve made myself. The “Foreman” jacket is from a pattern made by Merchant & Mills (you can read how I made it here). The green corduroy waistcoat used to be a pair of trousers that were wearing out. With a little effort, I redesigned it and it will now live on.

Sustainability part 9: Buying Secondhand

Buying secondhand clothes is similar to buying vintage clothes, but they will be more modern. There is an increasing number of ways to buy secondhand.

Buying secondhand clothes is similar to buying vintage clothes, but they will be more modern. There is an increasing number of ways to buy secondhand.

Today I’d like to talk about the secondhand market. This is where you as an informed consumer come into the picture. Be savvy, think ahead, consider what your money is really buying. It helps to break the fashion cycle and buy what you like instead of what you’re told to like. Think classic, the styles that are never truly unfashionable, though they may just happen to be fashionable at random intervals in time. Once you start paying attention, you’ll also become a lot more aware of the differences in how things are made, the fabrics used and what sort of real value you’re getting.

Where do you find good secondhand clothes though? The obvious places are charity shops, they offer low prices, a feelgood factor and the lure of the treasure hunt. A greater scope can be found through eBay and Etsy, giving access to international sellers. You might even try the international version of the Japanese Rakuten, though language can be a barrier. There are even online small ads services that can give similar a similar treasure hunt feel, from your own home. There is also a slew of new apps for buying and selling online, such as Depop , Shpock and Tise.

It can be quite compulsive, but it makes it easier to both buy and to sell what you no longer require.

There are also more specialised services, such as Marrkt that take on the role of the middleman when buying and selling more expensive and collectable items.

Remember though, it’s very much more sustainable for a garment to find a new user than to be recycled for its fibres. While it may feel good to dump a bag of clothes in a recycling container, in reality very little of it will be offered to new owners, as it will mainly be sold to recyclers who shred it to use for insulation or other purposes. This should really only be the fate of garments at the end of their life.

Today I’m wearing a secondhand shirt and tie from our local charity shop, Fretex, run by the Salvation Army, and a vintage Harris Tweed jacket I bought from an Oxfam shop in Liverpool and upcycled. Harris Tweed is quite remarkable as with almost no care at all it will last a very long time, all the while looking and feeling good. Details of my upcycling of this one can be found on the blog.

Sustainability part 10: Quality

Another option is to stop buying short-lived rubbish and buy properly made garments. Price and quality aren't necessarily linked, so it pays to be an informed consumer.

Another option is to stop buying short-lived rubbish and buy properly made garments. Price and quality aren’t necessarily linked, so it pays to be an informed consumer.

In part 5 I mentioned that a lot of the garments made now are basically rubbish the moment they are made. This is where you as an informed consumer come into the picture. Garment makers only make what they think they can sell, so if no one buys the crummy stuff, they’ll stop making it.

Be savvy, think ahead, consider what your money is really buying. It helps to break the fashion cycle and buy what you like instead of what you’re told to like. Think classic, the styles that are never truly unfashionable, yet happen to be fashionable at random intervals in time. Once you start paying attention, you’ll also become a lot more aware of the differences in how things are made, the fabrics used and what sort of real value you’re getting.

Is it a universal truth that the more expensive a garment is, the better it will be? Certainly not. On average the markup from maker to shop is around 4 times. So 25% of what you pay covers the cost of making the garment, the rest covers the expenses of distribution, wages, shop leases and profit margins. A point to consider is that most makers will produce a garment to a certain cost. So the money spent on fabric, buttons, zippers and so forth will be eeked as low as possible, as will the way the garment is constructed. If you compare a new shirt to a vintage shirt, you’ll notice how much simpler the modern piece is made, to save time, and hence costs, in cutting and sewing.

Today I’m wearing a jacket from Serac. This jacket is unusual in that it has been designed not down to a cost, but to the best possible specification and utility. This is done through advanced design, quality components and a high-end factory. While the end price isn’t for everyone, it is fascinating to see what can be made once the focus is changed from making something as cheap as possible to making something as good as possible.

Finally: Will you be joining Fashion Revolution on April 22nd?

Part 1 can be found here.

5 Comments

  • John Woodward 16/04/2019 at 20:29

    Excellent articles….I buy mostly used now..wish i had started many years ago.

    Reply
    • nick 16/04/2019 at 20:31

      Thank you, John!

      Reply
  • George W 16/04/2019 at 21:26

    Interesting article. Over the last few years I’ve drifted into pre-owned garments especially targeting brands that can be repaired or refurbished in the UK. Bringing a used garment or a pair of quality shoes back to life can be immensely satisfying.

    Reply
  • Michael 18/04/2019 at 20:06

    A concise and well thought out article. Thank’s. I too search for 2nd Hand and Vintage and subsequently learned to make simple alterations. Though how frustrating when you stumble across the perfect item, only to be far too large or small…walk away…

    Reply
    • nick 18/04/2019 at 20:10

      All part of the hunt! At least if it’s too large there is a slight hope, eh?

      Reply

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